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A Sermon That Made a Difference

by Ronald R Johnson (

Douglas had only been in Lancaster, Ohio, for a year when he was honored with an unusual preaching opportunity. The city had a Ministerial Association through which the local Protestant ministers kept in touch with each other and cooperated in certain ways. Each year on Thanksgiving, they held special Union services in a few designated churches around town. Attendance was usually good, considering the fact that the members of the city’s many churches all gathered at only two or three places, chosen in advance by the Association. Because the occasion was Thanksgiving, a special collection was taken, and the monies received were split among the participating congregations.

In 1906, Douglas was selected to preach at the largest of the three host churches, and newspaper accounts say that the place was crowded. The message Douglas delivered that morning made a difference: it altered (at least slightly) the history of Lancaster.

Preaching on the text “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” Douglas asked the congregation whether they were Jesus’ “friends.” He dwelt on that question a while, making sure heads were nodding all around the room, then drove home the point that friendship with Christ, who gave his life for us, must manifest itself in “a keen desire to help others.”

There must have been gasps of disbelief as he gave the following description of their annual Thanksgiving Union service:

“We have come together in times past to eulogize ourselves for our prosperity, and readjust our homemade haloes… and brag and boast about what all we have to be thankful for, after the order of the Pharisee’s Thanksgiving prayer, ‘Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are!’ We have even been so stupidly indifferent to the great tasks that belong to us, that we have divided our pitiful little Thanksgiving offering of nickels and dimes among the various church treasurers for them to use for their respective poor; and the church treasurers, for the most part deeming their own treasuries to be the most poverty-stricken creatures in town, have emptied this treasure into the coffers of their own churches, where it gently and silently evaporated into a calm, sweet nothingness…

“It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Christ wants and has a right to expect something better of his friends.

“If you have a thankful heart this day, reveal it by your sacrifice. Then let this handsome gift, amassed, initiate some fund that will put us on record for having this day, as friends of Christ, remembered in gratitude the boundlessness of his love…”

All of this was prelude. Now came the pitch: it was time to build a hospital in Lancaster.

“Every few days we are confronted with a problem, gigantic and soul-searching. A man is severely wounded. Maybe his home is not appointed to meet the exigencies that have arisen. He must be subjected to an operation. He must receive the most careful subsequent attention. One of two courses lies open. Either he must run the gauntlet with the pitiable circumstances in his humble home… or else the other alternative will be chosen and he is taken on a cot in the baggage car to Columbus for hospital treatment. And if he has not all the odds in his favor, in either case he hasn’t had a fighting chance.”

Douglas went on to argue that it made as much sense from a civic as from a religious perspective to build a hospital in town rather than shipping people off to Columbus for medical attention. He added:

“I believe that the highest adoration to God is rendered by the man who accompanies his ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’ with a check on his bank account. I believe that a man can express more real, conscientious Christianity with his pocketbook than with his prayer book.”

As one of the local papers remarked, “So effective were his words that at the conclusion of his address Mr. James T Pickering [Lancaster’s Postmaster General] arose and moved that the day’s collection be used as the nucleus of a hospital fund. The motion met with practically unanimous approval and the offertory which followed aggregated over $100.” These were 1906 dollars, bear in mind. One online calculator estimates that it would be $3018.84 in 2021 dollars. By comparison, the collection at the other two Union services totaled $4 ($12 by today’s values).

In 1907, the “Park Street Hospital” opened in a private home in the 200 block of Park Street. It was not unusual for cities of that size to set up their first hospitals in houses. The city where I live (Kalamazoo, Michigan) did the same thing : Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo began in 1889 in a private residence, and what is now Bronson Hospital did the same thing in 1900. (See Jacqueline L Wylie and Anna M Stryd, Bronson Women and the School of Nursing: Journeys Through One Hundred Years (Kalamazoo: Alumni Association of Bronson Methodist Hospital School of Nursing, 2005), pp 4, 9-10.)

Others had pushed for a hospital in Lancaster prior to November 1906, but Douglas’s sermon helped move the project along. Most of us never get a chance to make history, even on the local level, but Douglas did. And it started as nothing more than an opportunity to preach. It tells us something about Douglas that he saw larger possibilities in that invitation.

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